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Paleo Diets and Utopian Dreams

“LIFE WAS GOOD FOR OUR PALEOLITHIC GRANDparents,” recounts a 2001 diet book.1 A 2013 diet laments that civilization has “transformed healthy and vital people free of chronic diseases into sick, fat, and unhappy people.”2 If everyone went Paleo, one dieter interviewed for this article explained, “the world would be a more beautiful, healthier place, and we all would be more healthy, better people.”3

Figure 1—The Land of Cockaigne (1567) by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

An estimated three million Americans currently follow some version of the Paleo diet, and Paleo books are among the bestselling titles within an already blockbuster genre.4 At its most basic, Paleo diets reject agricultural products such as cereals and sugars for foods that could have been hunted or gathered—mostly high-fat, high-fiber meats and plants. In practice, “going Paleo” means everything from the ordinary to the outlandish.5 On the latter end of the spectrum, some dieters avoid artificial light, eat raw beef, forsake shoes, practice bloodletting, engage in polyamorous sexual relationships, and “adopt a primal attitude,” whatever that means.6 For others, the diet is just that: a diet of mainly meat and vegetables (occasionally fruits and legumes) adopted to lose weight or gain muscle. Most dieters practice Paleo to lose weight, but this “species-appropriate diet” allegedly cures more than a hundred ailments, ranging from Alzheimer’s to anxiety, epilepsy to acne.7

Despite its popularity, the Paleolithic diet has received little scholarly attention. The diet is not merely a collection of weight loss manuals but a complex and controversial social movement indebted to a long history of primitivist nutritional counsel, divided by bitter philosophical splits, alternately mocked and praised by mainstream medicine. The whole weight loss narrative genre has much to offer an interdisciplinary study of utopia and, in particular, the caveman diet offers an embodied utopian practice embedded within a powerful story of an original, lost Paleolithic paradise.

But the caveman diet is more than a myth of a lost golden age and more than a handbook for weight loss: the diets are at once a manual for the body, the self, and society. Paleo diets have been heralded as the best “way of life,” a “revolution,” and, most important, the “first glimpse of a new and better world.”8 The Paleo diet differs from most self-help literature by linking corporeal and social transformation, enlisting the body to measure and materialize the processes of recouping the utopia within. These diets uphold social dreams with shared origins (in the cave), a collective problem (the obesity epidemic), and common ends (health for all). As the 2013 Paleo Manifesto puts it, the diet aspires “to understand where we come from, to make the best of where we are, and to craft a better future.”9

The caveman diet mixes myth and manual to create a new and different type of embodied utopia. Traditionally, body utopias are modeled after the old, medieval model of binging and reckless overindulgence. Imagine paintings like Bruegel’s 16th century The Land of Cockaigne (left): peasants, passed out on cobbled streets, stuffed to the gills with meat pies and puddings and sausage. Or the carnival fantasy of the 16th century novels The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (right) and their visions of grotesque, celebratory excess. But the Paleo diet today represents a radical departure from this older model—slow, moderate, nuanced, delicate experiences of appetite and natural flavor.

The story is told like this: Since agriculture is such a recent invention on the timeline of human evolution, “our genes are still in the Stone Age,” and we must follow “what our ancient ancestors ate” to recapture “our natural birthright of health.”10 We are “literally Stone Agers living in the Space Age” and time has sped too fast for our bodies to adapt.11 Ill-adapted and clumsy in this strange new world, our modern bodies have become sick, fat, and stressed. In this narrative, the Paleo diet situates the individual body in the long, deep currents of human history, suggesting that the body is on loan from history and obliged to the future—and only one’s own property for a short-lived half-blink of evolutionary time.

The Caveman Diet Subgenre, or, “Bread Is the Staff of Death”

Western weight loss literature has a long tradition of venerating “primitive” diets and ways of life. Since the 19th century, influential American diet reformers conjectured about the diets of preagricultural peoples and recommended these “natural” foods to cure ailing moderns. In the 1890s, Dr. Emmet Densmore popularized a meat-heavy diet inspired by the “food of primal man,” claiming that “bread is the staff of death” and “imbecility, decrepitude, and premature death go hand in hand with luxury and plenty.”12 “Primitive” diets were not restricted to Densmore’s “anticerealism” or the low-carb cause.13 Throughout his long life, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) also speculated on “the ways and likings of our primitive ancestors of prehistoric times” to support his diet of grains and other farinaceous (starchy) foods.14

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About Skeptic

INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY SPECIAL SECTION: IS PORNOGRAPHY BAD FOR YOU?; How Porn Is Messing with Your Manhood; Skeptical of Porn Skeptics; Hazards of Herbal Medicine: Lessons from Aristolochia; What is Sexual Orientation?; Did a Teenager Discover an Ancient Mayan City on Google Earth?; Paleo Diets and Utopian Dreams; Does AA Work? Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step Programs, and What We Really Know About Substance Abuse Treatment; The Clash of Eschatologies: The Role of End-Times Thinking in World History; Nightmares from the Id: The Neurophysiology of Anomalous Psychological Experiences; Terror Attacks that Never Were; Electromagnetic Fields and Parental Panics: A Case Study in How Science Can Bring Comfort; REVIEWS: Who Invented Science?; Science and the Creation of the Modern Mind; Heaven Is Not For Real; When Scientific American Put Psychics to the Test; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: MammothMysteries! Part One. The Hidden History of Mammoths and Mastodons